Rock of Ages: The Higher the Hair, the Bigger the Hit

Remember the 80s? The spandex, the hair teasing, the cheesy power anthems with even cheesier videos, the… rubix cube? Ok, so I wasn’t actually around during the 80s, but I have some very fond memories of the I Love the 80s series on VH1, and those marathons are all the context you need to appreciate the joke of Rock of Ages. And that’s what it is, one giant joke that pays off rather well in my opinion.

The movie, based on the smash hit Broadway musical, tells the story of a small town girl (Julianne Hough) who runs off to Hollywood with stars in her eyes, only to run smack dab into her very own city boy (Diego Boneta) and, as Drew says, it goes on and on and on. There’s also a periphery storyline involving a legendary nightclub and a crusading mayoral wife committed to shutting it down, along with the heathen lifestyle it represents. It’s all very generic and I never felt any real sense of danger in any of the storylines, but I don’t think that was the point.  And the dialogue?  This should be named the official movie of Wisconsin because there was a whole lot of cheese coming of these actor’s mouths, but again, I have to believe that was kind of the point.

Rock of Ages really went all out to capture a certain mood and exuberance that has come to exemplify that decade. It may not be the most realistic depiction of the 80s, but it’s one that’s instantly recognizable and most importantly fun. Rock of Ages hits every note you would expect from an idealized version of 1987 on the Sunset Strip; teased hair, tight skirts and strippers and rock Gods galore. But what the director, Adam Shankman, was really going for wasn’t a movie about 1987, but one that could be from 1987, and on that front, for better or worse, he did not fail. There’s even a roller blading montage.

But let’s be honest, what’s really creating the tone here is the music. Now, I’m no stranger to musicals, but even I was astounded by the sheer number of songs they managed to cram into 123 minutes. But manage they do, mostly thanks to shortened versions of the tunes and the increasingly popular mash ups, some of which work better than others.  The mash up of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “We Built This City” (with some surprising cameos), was one of the best numbers in the film, but the combination of “Jukebox Hero” and “I Love Rock n’ Roll” just seemed forced and went on to the point of tedium.

The performances were a pleasant surprise as well. Some people are clearly going the Rex Harrison, talk-singing route (Alec Baldwin) while others have received generous help in post (Tom Cruise, I’m looking at you), but the large majority are decent singers. Of course it helps that 80s rock ballads usually call for better screamers than singers, but still. Of course the stand out performances are Catherine Zeta Jones and Mary J. Blige, because, you know, they can actually sing.  My favorite line, though, goes to Hough’s Sherrie when asked if she can dance and she replies, “I’m a better singer”. Having seen you do both, honey, I’d say that’s inaccurate. If the question were whether she can act, then the answer would have made more sense.

As far as the usual standards of judging a musical, i.e. using music to tell a story, Rock of Ages falls short. Held up as an entertaining comedy, in certainly succeeds. There was enough tongue in cheek to make me laugh out loud more than a few times during the film, and most telling, I found it even funnier while discussing it after the credits had rolled. The ability to keep someone laughing is the mark of a true cult hit or maybe just a really cheesy 80s film, but then again, those are often the same thing.

– Devin Mainville

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